Posts filed under ‘France’

Adieu, Paris!

On day 20, Mom and I bid adieu to Paris. I always feel a little weepy when I think about leaving Paris, because I’m always a little worried that I’ll never find my way back. But then I always do. I don’t mean to make myself sound like a spoiled brat. I just mean that I have come to terms with the fact that I will always prioritize Paris over things like well-balanced meals and new clothes. My best friend and best travel buddy isn’t so keen on the idea of going to Paris, but I keep dreaming that I’ll be able to take her, someday.

But back to day 20, which began again at the same café where we began day 19. How far away perfect pains au chocolat seem now. Mom and I parted ways after that, because she’d been wanting to see the Unicorn Tapestries at the Musée Cluny for years and years, and I’d been dreaming about a repeat visit to La Sainte-Chapelle for eight years. We had tried to go to La Sainte-Chapelle the day before, but the line was long, and we didn’t want to take the time to wait, since we had quite an itinerary.

Palais de Justice and La Sainte-Chapelle

It was just a short walk from the café to the Ile de la Cité, the island in the Seine at the centre of Paris. Ile de la Cité is home to two important churches, Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is located inside the Palais de Justice, so you have to go through metal detectors before you get to the church, which accounts for the long lines. Of course, I forget the annoyance of the lines and the waiting when I entered the courtyard.

La Sainte-Chapelle

The church was built in the 13th century and commissioned by King Louis IX. The age of it astonishes me, for some reason. It’s just so much more spectacular than what I expect from anything built before the Renaissance.

The entrance fee is a bit steep, in my opinion, especially for a church, and especially when I wasn’t with my mom and had to pony up my own Euros. I think it was about 8 Euros, which I suppose is not the end of the world, but on my last day using Euros, I think the wallet was getting a little thin. Ah well. It was a worthy way to spend the last of my Euros. And of course, I forgot all about the entrance fee as soon as I got upstairs:

La Sainte-Chapelle windows 1
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 2
La Sainte-Chapelle windows 3

Just incredible!

The spectacular stained glass windows are taller and more narrow than in similar French churches, and the ratio of glass to wall is off the charts, so the effect is overwhelming. I had been inside the church just once before and it was exactly like I remembered it and more incredible than I had remembered it, at the same time. I wrote an awkward essay about the experience in my first nonfiction writing class, circa 2006, and it’s a subject that I have wanted to revisit, but I still don’t think that I am the writer that I need to be in order to do it justice.

La Sainte-Chapelle was more crowded than it was on my previous visit, and I think it’s because Paris has adopted those multi-attraction admissions passes. Suddenly any touring family with the cash to drop on a pass knows about La Sainte-Chapelle, and it’s just down the the road from Notre Dame, so why not kill two birds with one stone? It’s wonderful that more people are experiencing it, but I did selfishly wish that I’d been able to enjoy the windows in a bit calmer setting.

Mom had a wonderful time at the Cluny and told me all about the tapestries and showed me the postcards that she bought, and maybe next time I’m in Paris, I’ll see the Unicorn Tapestries, but this time, I know that I made the right decision in prioritizing La Sainte-Chapelle.

We met up in the Latin Quarter, thanks to our international text messaging plan, and we still had a few hours before we needed to get to the train station, so we decided to hit the Place des Vosges. Mom swore I’d seen it before, from the windows of a tour bus on a driving tour of Paris, but I didn’t remember the gorgeous red brick townhouses, so I’d put it on the itinerary as a possibility. Place des Vosges is also home to Victor Hugo’s house, now a museum, and it’s also near the Place de la Bastille. I knew that I’d seen the Bastille monument from the window of a tour bus, but I didn’t have a photo of it. And that matters to me.

Place de la Bastille
We got off the Métro at Bastille, took this photo, and then made our way into the Marais, one of Paris’ more fashionable arrondissements.

Maison de Victor Hugo
Inside Victor Hugo’s house, we saw old books and learned that he had lots of books, plates, floral wallpaper, and mistresses. Or just one mistress, maybe. I suppose it doesn’t matter. For any writing nerds visiting Paris, I thought that museum was interesting and informative, especially considering the price (zero Euros). It was also hot. I guess Hugo couldn’t afford central air conditioning.

Place des Vosges
We ate lunch at a café on the square, where I bravely revisited the galette (savoury crêpe), which had so disappointed me at the mini golf-bar-restaurant in Normandy. It turned out that it was the mini golf-bar-restaurant that was the problem, not the galette itself, as I quite liked the galette I had on the Place des Vosges.

After lunch, we took our last Métro ride of the trip back to the hotel to pick up our bags and call a cab. Taking the Métro to the hotel with all of our suitcases was an adventure that we were not to relive, so Mom splurged for a cab. We weren’t staying too far from the Gare du Nord, although the traffic made it feel much further. We made it in plenty of time, though, and even had time for Mom to buy some train snacks while I sat with the bags and determined that we needed to fill out customs forms before we got in line to go to the Eurostar waiting area. Word to the wise: fill out your forms before you get in line, unless you want to be yelled at in multiple languages.

The Eurostar gate at Gare de Lyon is not big enough for the amount of traffic that it gets, so I was glad that we didn’t have to wait too long. We had a smooth ride back to London, where we arrived at St Pancras International Station, which already had Olympic spirit.

St Pancras
I’m particularly fond of trains that pull up under Olympic rings!

Our adventures by train were not over, so we pulled our suitcases a few blocks to Euston Station, where we planned to take the Caledonia Sleeper to Edinburgh. In the days of high-speed trains (at least on other continents…), it’s easy to get from London to Edinburgh in just a couple of hours, but everything I’d read about the Caledonia Sleeper made it sound like a charming adventure, so I thought it would be fun. Plus, taking the sleeper train there and back saved us on hotel costs and it saved our daylight hours for sightseeing.

I knew from my research that we needed to book a sleeper berth, but I’d read that they didn’t usually book up during the week, so I wasn’t too worried. Until I got to the ticket counter and discovered that it was closed. We eventually found out that the ticket booth for the sleeper train is only open during the day, and it closes several hours before the train actually leaves around midnight. Oups. Our best option, according to the ticket people, was to hang around until about 15 minutes before the train left, and then mosey on down to the platform to see if we could get on the train. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we couldn’t get on the train, but I tried not to worry about it and I introduced my mom to Simply Food, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

Stay tuned to see if we got on the train on Day 21! Also: this is my 100th post! Finally!

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March 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm 1 comment

Classy in Paris, feat. Macarons

Since my mom was a French teacher and has been to Paris so many times, I think she would have been happy with this trip even if we’d skipped some of the major sights, but as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I wanted good photos of everything. This meant that our first stop after lunch on our classy day in Paris was the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées.

Arc de Triomphe

We popped out of the Métro at the madness at Étoile, crossed the Champs-Élysées to get photos from a few different vantage points—the photo above was taken at a red light in the middle of the Champs-Élysées—and then retreated right back underground into the Métro. Arc de Triomphe? Check.

Mom and I are quite familiar with the Paris Métro and we read French well, and as mentioned before, I really love transit systems, but the redesigned Étoile station managed to confuse us so much that we got on the RER instead of the Métro. Fortunately, I easily re-navigated us, and we were back on track without too much hassle, which was good, because our next stop was Pierre Hermé.

My love for macarons dates back to spring 2010, when my friend Christina was visiting and introduced me to the delightful cookies at Vanille at the Chicago French Market. Vanille always has a big selection, and their fillings taste great, but their cookies are kind of crumbly, something that Christina tried to explain when I tried my first bite of macaron. I didn’t fully understand until visiting her in spring 2011 and trying the macarons from a Whole Foods in the Toronto area. Those macarons got me hooked, the macarons at La Bamboche near her place in Toronto sealed the deal, and when I arrived in Europe on this trip, I had serious macaron-related goals.

I had tried (and loved) the macarons from Ladurée in London, but my research had me really excited for Pierre Hermé, which promised more unusual flavours while maintaining a high standard of traditional macaron.

Place de la Concorde

Pierre Hermé is a big deal in Paris and has several locations, but I had chosen to visit the shop at 4 rue Cambon, in the 1er arrondissement, near the Place de la Concorde (above), the Tuileries gardens, and the classy shopping of the Place Vendôme area. We weren’t quite hungry yet when we arrived, so we took a bit of a walk through the shopping district, which impressed me much more than it impressed my mom, but it wasn’t long before we were ready for our macarons break. We decided to get four macarons, and the hardest part was definitely choosing which four to try! I actually don’t remember all of the ones that we tried and I cannot easily locate my trip journal right this second, but I know that we picked a hazelnut flavour (one of my classic favourites), as well as the asparagus, because we wanted to try something unique. The odd-sounding, more savoury flavours are what set Pierre Hermé apart, even in the macaron-drenched Parisian landscape. PH rotates their flavours seasonally, and they appear to keep coming up with new and interesting concoctions.

Pierre Herme macarons

We took our macarons across the street and found some shaded chairs in the Tuileries. Unlike Hyde Park in London, there didn’t appear to be any chair monitors, collecting rental fees for using the chairs. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Parisian gardens often feature dusty paths, instead of grass or paved walkways, and walking through the garden in flip-flops kind of turned me off to the Tuileries. The fountains were nice, but give me Chicago’s Millenium Park, Vancouver’s Stanley Park, or New York’s Central Park any day.

But back to the macarons! They were absolutely delicious and even managed to exceed my super-high expectations. The savoury flavours, like the asparagus, were so rich that even though they did taste like veggies, they still had a distinct dessert quality. I would give just about anything for PH to open a Chicago location. He already has just about as many shops in Japan as he does in France, so perhaps he will be willing to expand in the other overseas direction in the future. (Please?)

Our next stop was the Musée Rodin, and we got there by taking a nice stroll across the Seine…

Seine Walk

…and crossing on the Pont Alexandre III and walking past Les Invalides.

Pont Alexandre III and Les Invalides

On my first visit to Paris, I was beginning a Russian phase, having already taught myself the Russian alphabet and beginning to attend Russian language immersion camp in the summers. So I was very interested in the Pont Alexandre III, which was named for Tsar Alexander III and built in 1896. The gaudiness of the bridge compliments Les Invalides, the domed building which houses Napoleon’s grave. I have never been inside, and this trip was no different, but we took some photos. I was surprised at how big it is, since I had only ever driven up to it on a bus tour before.

Our last stop of the day was the Musée Rodin, where many of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures are housed. The museum is a lovely old mansion, which is a perfect setting to showcase some of his finest work, including:

The Thinker
“The Thinker”

The Gates of Hell
and “The Gates of Hell.”

We also saw “The Burghers,” “The Kiss,” and his sculpture of Victor Hugo, among many others. Unfortunately, it was at the Musée Rodin when I finally reached my limit. I can travel at an extraordinary pace for quite a while, longer than most people I know, but I am not limitless. Since I am so used to pushing through exhaustion on trips and am so determined to see everything that I can and not waste any time, my limit usually creeps up on me suddenly. I think we were standing in line for the museum when I started to feel sick, and half an hour later, somewhere between “The Burghers” and “The Kiss,” I reached my limit. Every time I have a long trip, somewhere around 3/4 of the way through, I get to a point where I want to run back home as fast as I can and hibernate for a few months. It’s because I push myself like crazy when I am traveling; I never want to miss anything, and I always say that I will sleep later, after I get home. And it always catches up with me.

The Musée Rodin didn’t really offer any options for me to curl up in a ball and go to sleep, so I settled for sitting on a bench for a few minutes and waiting for my head to stop spinning. Of course, the trapped hot air inside the stuffy old non-airconditioned house did not help, so I eventually migrated to a bench outside and managed to recharge.

Musee Rodin

It really wasn’t such a bad place to recharge.

I would have loved to eat an early meal and be in bed by 9, but that’s not a realistic wish in Paris. We did go back to the hotel and relaxed a little before having dinner at a restaurant near our hotel that featured terrible salads and a lovely house rosé wine that was cheaper than ordering water. We definitely saved the evening by swinging by our breakfast café and getting a crêpe. In fact, it was the perfect crêpe—just crispy enough on the outside, and full of gooey Nutella and banana on the inside.

February 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm 2 comments

Classy in Paris, feat. Opéra Garnier

On Day 19 of the trip, my mom and I set out from our hotel in the Latin Quarter with a classy agenda of opera, fancy food, and sculpture. We were staying at Hotel Sully St-Germain, which I would normally recommend for its location, clean accommodations, and value, but they are currently closed for renovations and scheduled to reopen in August. This probably means that they will raise their prices and won’t be such a great value. Anyway, we needed breakfast first. The price for eating in the hotel was pretty steep and since we were in such a touristy area, we decided to try one the breakfast deal at a nearby café. It wasn’t anything fancy, but the pain au chocolat was good, as was the café au lait, so it was more than enough for us. I think that the café was called Les Délices du Fournil, and it was on rue des Carmes, just off of Boul. St-Germain, for interested tourists. Don’t go out of your way to eat there or anything, but if you are staying in the area, it’s a good option.

Anyway, once we were full of bread and coffee, we were off to our first stop, the Opéra Garnier. This is the old Paris opera house that is on Place d’Opéra, that was the inspiration for the setting of Phantom of the Opera, and that is pretty spectacular, even just from the exterior.

Opera Garnier, exterior

I had been wanting to go inside the Opéra Garnier since my first trip to Paris in 1996, long before I ever entered any opera house. I devised a plan to go inside on a trip in 2003, when I was an assistant chaperone on one of my mom’s student trips, but I arrived too late and it wasn’t open for visitors. So this time, I planned ahead and learned that tourists can visit for a small price (I think it was around 7 or 8 EUR). Tours are given in both French and English, but when we arrived, a tour had just left, and we had a full day, so we decided to wander around on our own instead of waiting for the next tour. I’m sure the tour would have been interesting, but we enjoyed our visit by just following the brochure.

Opera Garnier, interior

I mean, what’s not to enjoy?

One of the boxes was open, so we got to go inside (smaller than I expected!) and see the theatre, complete with its incredible ceiling by Marc Chagall.

Chagall ceiling, Opera Garnier

The opera building was designed in 1861 by Charles Garnier and was completed in 1874. The famous chandelier actually did fall in the 1890s, which was part of Leroux’s inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera. The Chagall painting was added in 1964. After the Paris Opera moved to its new, larger theatre near the Bastille, restorations began on the Opéra Garnier and they lasted through most of the ’90s and ’00s. I guess it’s good that I waited to finally see it, because I was able to enjoy the impressive building in all of its true glory. And without any scaffolding.

Opéra Garnier
This long gallery on the second floor was overwhelming. It’s one of those times when a photo cannot do the space justice. Walking into it felt like being engulfed in gold leaf.

Me at the opera
I even dressed up a bit for my day out in Paris, partly because I wanted to match the classiness of it, and partly because it was really hot and I don’t own shorts, so a dress was the best option.

Of course the exit from the opera goes right through the gift shop, so mom and I spent some time perusing their music collections. I helped her pick out some inexpensive, but good quality CDs, including a collection of Tchaikovsky ballet suites.

Next up was the Place de la Madeleine. Although it features a church, we actually didn’t go to see the church (shocking, for me), mostly because the church looks like this:

La Madeleine

It’s a Neo-Classical building that began its life as a monument that Napoleon commissioned for himself. I found out later that Madeleine was modeled after Maison Carrée in Nimes, in the south of France, which is an actual Roman temple. Mom and I have been there on a couple of trips. After Napoleon’s fall, I guess Paris wasn’t sure what to do with the monument, but they finally turned it into a church. I think the interior is prettier, but we didn’t go inside. We mainly went to the Place de la Madeleine for the food.

Two legendary gourmet grocery stores are located on the Place de la Madeleine:

Fauchon
Fauchon

Hediard
and Hédiard.

I have recently developed an intense appreciation for fancy foods, and I have discovered that buying prepared foods at fancy grocery stores is the best way to enjoy fancy foods on a budget. So we went in both stores before making up our minds and selecting our lunches. Fauchon was flashy, with a bright white interior accented with pink and black. It felt like shopping for food in a fashion boutique. Hédiard seemed older and more traditional, with a big deli counter along one wall.

Hediard bag
So we ended up choosing Hédiard and we each got an incredible slice of quiche. Mine had tomatoes and cheese and some other vegetables, and it kind of tasted like what would happen if you merged a pizza with a quiche. I had been away from Chicago for almost 3 weeks at this point, and was really starting to miss pizza. I don’t even eat pizza that often at home, but as soon as I leave, it’s what I start missing. Mom is more keen on spinach than I am, so she picked a very green quiche, and the lovely staff at Hédiard warmed our lunches for us, and we took our cheery red bag across the street to eat on the steps of La Madeleine. I sampled Mom’s quiche and it was excellent, but I was glad I’d picked the mouth-watering quasi-Parisian-pizza quiche.

So a visit to the opera and a gourmet Parisian lunch? Our day of culture in Paris certainly started well. Stay tuned for more great eats and some sculpture.

February 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm Leave a comment

From Sunrise to Sunset

The best part of having an eastward-facing waterfront hotel room in Perros-Guirec is that I could take sunrise photos without leaving the room. I set an alarm, hit snooze, popped up to grab a few shots, went back to sleep for nine minutes, a few more shots, nine more minutes of sleep, etc. And I ended up with this:
Sunrise in Perros-Guirec
Not bad, eh? We didn’t have too much time after I stopped snoozing through sunrise, since we had to drive the car back to Caen and catch our train to Paris. However, we did have enough time for breakfast at hotel, and I’m still so glad that we decided to have breakfast that day! I couldn’t face another day without morning coffee, and wow, the Hotel du Port really put together a lovely breakfast. Amazing experience overall…I wish we had more time in Perros-Guirec and hope that I can return someday.

After spending much of the day traveling, we were back in Paris! Of course, getting to our Latin Quarter hotel via Metro was a bit of an ordeal with our bags again, but we made it. Since we had never stayed in the Latin Quarter before, I mapped out a nice walk through the 5e and 6e arrondissements.

Pantheon
We were staying right down the hill from the Panthéon, where many of France’s great thinkers and writers are buried. I’d been by it at least 3 times before, but always on a bus tour, and I’d never seen it from any vantage point besides through a bus window. It was much larger than it seems when you’re driving by on a bus.

Sorbonne
The Latin Quarter is home to the Sorbonne, the main university in Paris, so it’s full of students. It is also home to a lot of hotels, especially chain hotels, so it’s also full of tourists.

We also visited the Église St-Sulpice, which is known for organ-playing, something having to do with the Da Vinci Code, and Delacroix frescoes.
St-Sulpice
Delacroix Frescoes
We were there for the Delacroix frescoes.

From there, we walked a long way down Boul St-Germain to the Église St-Germain-des-Pres, located across the street from Les Deux Magots, where folks like Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway used to hang out. I have a feeling that Les Deux Magots wasn’t so overpriced in their days. I’m not posting any photos of St-Germain-des-Pres, because it was a bit underwhelming.

I will, however, post this photo of a couple canoodling under a Métro sign:
couple canoodling under a metro sign

I love the Paris Métro. I love many things about it, and one of those things is the old signage. I learned from my book about the Métro (Christmas gift last year!) that the different signs were introduced at different times and what’s left now is a hodge-podge of what came before. This style is my favourite:
Cite Metro

We started heading back toward the hotel after that, stopping for dinner first. For “dinner,” I only wanted one thing: a legit Parisian street crêpe filled with Nutella and bananas.
Parisian crepe
It was delicious, although not quite the right degree of crispiness on the outside.

In my past trips to Paris, I had always visited Notre Dame around the middle of the day. Now that I am a photographer and trying to pay more attention to light, I really wanted to swing by Notre Dame during magic hour, since the façade would be lit up with lovely golden light.

Notre Dame
Perfect!

The only thing left on the day’s itinerary was to photograph the Eiffel Tower, but we wanted to wait for dark. Of course, it doesn’t get dark in Paris in June until about 10pm, so we had lots of time to kill. And what better way to kill time than with Berthillon ice cream?! Berthillon is famous all over the world for its fabulous ice cream and sorbets. It is sold all over Paris now, but the original location is in a café on the Ile St-Louis, behind Notre Dame. The line is always long, but it’s worth it. So my mom and I walked up to the end of the line, about 15-20 people deep. And about 2 minutes later, I realized that we were standing in line behind Meg Ryan.

Yep.

She was chatting with this kid she was with, maybe about 15 or 16, and she didn’t seem to know him super well. Friend’s kid, maybe? Or someone she was acting with in a movie set in Paris? Not sure. Anyway, we didn’t bug her. A couple of other people did and she was polite enough although she did ask them not to make a big scene. One even asked our permission…I think she thought we were her entourage. Anyway, so Meg and the kid got their ice cream and walked away, and then my mom and I got our ice cream. It was pretty crowded right around the café, with a bicycle rental area on the bridge and a polka band playing, so we went into the churchyard behind Notre Dame. And so had Meg and the kid, because we spied them hoisting themselves onto playground equipment, Meg’s legs flailing out from under her dress as she pulled herself up to this weird pedestal thing to sit. So Mom and I finished our ice cream, and even though the light wasn’t optimal for photos of the back of Notre Dame, I started to set up a shot of the back, with all of the buttresses. And then Meg Ryan walked into my shot.
Notre Dame and Meg Ryan

So after that excitement, we headed for La Tour Eiffel and arrived a little early, but that gave me time to hover around the railing in front of the Palace de Chaillot until someone left. I wanted one of those classic night shots, where the sky is sapphire blue and the lights are golden. Since I didn’t have a tripod, I knew that I would need a railing to set my camera up for a longer shutter speed. I hadn’t done any night photography like this before, so I wasn’t sure if it would turn out like I wanted it to, but I figured I could give it a shot.

La Tour Eiffel
Well, it took a few tries to get the white balance right, but I ended up getting a shot exactly like the one that I saw in my mind! Next time, I will need a tripod and a neutral density filter so I can get the shot with the long trails of lights from cars.

I started to pick up my camera and was about to relinquish my spot when a couple came up to me and asked me to take a photo of them. They had a Canon Rebel and when they saw me with my camera, they figured that I could handle it. So I took a photo and then they asked if I wanted them to return the favour. I had them take a photo of Mom and me, but it turned out that Jim wasn’t really so great with cameras.
Mom and Me
So this is the best one…not sure how he managed to get that weird shadow in the shot, but hey, at least I finally have a photo of my mom and me at the Eiffel Tower!

December 21, 2011 at 5:03 pm 1 comment

Pink Bliss.

Day 17, Part 2 was probably my most-anticipated part of the entire Europe trip. Why? Because we were going to Perros-Guirec! Random, eh? I hadn’t heard of Perros-Guirec before I started planning for the trip in May. Then, I knew that I wanted to go “somewhere in Brittany,” but I wasn’t sure what Brittany boasted, besides women in bonnets who were photographed for French textbooks. Once I started researching, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, until I switched languages and started researching in French. Perros-Guirec, despite its proximity to the ferries from England, was mainly publicized in French, and I was absolutely smitten with the photos of its pink granite coast. I learned that the pink granite formations are found only two other places in the world, Corsica and China, so I started looking for a place to stay in the area. Once I found a waterfront hotel in Perros-Guirec for only 60 Euros, it was settled. Perros-Guirec was officially on the itinerary. And I officially began praying for sunshine on the one half-day that we had to spend there.

We were careful not to spend too much time at Mont St-Michel, because we wanted to arrive in Perros-Guirec with plenty of light left to walk the coast. Since we were making great time and since we really wanted to see some women in white bonnets, we stopped at a Breton dance festival in Guingamp. The admission was something like 15EUR/person and since we didn’t want to spend too much time, we declined to go in, but I did snap a photo of girls in white bonnets through the fence! Mission accomplished.
Breton girls

The Bretons have their own language, more similar to Welsh than French, since they are a Celtic group of people. Brittany, or Bretagne, is mainly rural and many older Bretons live and farm in ways that are similar to how their ancestors lived on the same lands. Unfortunately, as with Welsh, the Breton language is in danger of dying out. The region has launched campaigns to save the language and culture, so festivals are common throughout the summer, and signs are usually in both Breton and French.

Retro sign
Like this sign! Mom and I loved these retro signs along the highways throughout Normandie and Bretagne. We didn’t see one for the Pink Granite Coast, probably because it’s not directly off the main highway, but this one was for a nearby beach.

We checked into the Hotel du Port first, and were so impressed with our classy room and harbour view. The woman at the reception desk (one of the owners, I think) was kind and informative, and chatted with us in French, slowly enough that I could understand, and without any apparent difficulties understanding me, which is always nice. She marked out a path to follow on a map of the region and sent us off to the coastal paths.

Pink Granite Coast 1
Prayer for a beautiful day granted! And the rocks did not disappoint. I was blown away by the beauty of the coast, and the colour of the pinks against the bright blue water.

Pink Granite Coast 2
Amazing! We loved seeing the Queen Anne’s Lace growing in occasional patches, because it reminded me of the walks that I used to take in the country with Jeannie, one of my mom’s longtime friends.

House
I think that this might be the house where Henryk Sinkiewicz wrote Quo Vadis; it was somewhere along the path, but we didn’t find anywhere to pick up a guide. I haven’t read Sinkiewicz, but he won a Nobel Prize, so he’s probably a fairly decent writer, and I have decided that if I also want to be a fairly decent writer, I should probably write my next book from inside this house as well. Anyone want to sponsor this plan? Haha.

Lighthouse
I am usually a fan of the traditional lighthouse look, but a red-and-white striped lighthouse would have looked so silly here, so I’m glad they stuck with the pink granite!

Puffin Sign
It’s funny, we went out on a boat last year in Newfoundland to see puffins, since we didn’t think that we’d have that opportunity again. One year later, here we are in another town known for puffins! (After a bit of research, I think we still made the right choice…it seems like Newfoundland has a higher concentration of puffins than Bretagne!)

Beach 1
After about an hour of walking, we arrived in the centre of Ploumanac’h, where they have one of the prettiest little public beaches that I have ever seen!

Church
Pink Granite Church just above the beach in Ploumanac’h

Ploumanac'h
One more shot of of the beach, shot from up by the church

Of course, once we had hiked all along the coast, we still had to get back to our car, so we decided to cut our hike short here and start walking back, on interior streets this time, instead of the coastal path. We ended up walking past a gigantic Breton souvenir shop, where we browsed for quite a while. I bought some sea salt caramels (famous in the region, apparently) for Jules and a Bretagne mug for myself. I could have bought so much more, if only I didn’t have to worry about my suitcase’s weight on the way home!

Once we got back to the hotel, it was just about dinnertime, so we headed up the street to La Marée, on the recommendation of the friendly hotel lady. I feel like I should write her a thank you note, because La Marée provided one of the best meals I have ever had!

Seafood feast!
I ordered a combination plate of oysters and shrimp for my main course, and when they brought this plate, I was stunned and a bit intimidated. I had never had oysters that looked quite like that, and the shrimp had eyes and tentacles and such. I wasn’t grossed out by it, but I didn’t know how to eat them. Fortunately, when I started struggling with the oysters, a friendly older man at the next table offered some advice. I was embarrassed, but grateful, and it didn’t seem like he was laughing at us. When it came to the shrimp, he got up and showed me how to pull the heads off (if you pull the wrong way, you get a spray of gross shrimp juice), and then we ended up chatting with him and his wife for the rest of our meal. He told us all about how he loved the United States, and asked if we were from New York, Hollywood, or where the cowboys are. We said Chicago, and he looked at us blankly and said something else about cowboys. I’m not sure he’d ever heard of Chicago, and I think he was legitimately disappointed that we weren’t cowboys or from New York. His daughter had recently moved to Montréal, and he was looking forward to visiting her next year, when he also planned to see New York and the cowboys. Nice man!

After dinner, we walked a little bit along the docks, and when we went back to the room, I took a panoramic of the harbour. Lots of boats, and I love how late the light stuck around.
Harbour

Flags
Bretagne, France, and the European Union

December 16, 2011 at 10:41 am 1 comment

Cow Crossing and a Medieval Abbey

Mont St-Michel is the most popular French tourist attraction outside of Paris, but like the D-Day Beaches, it was an attraction that my mom had managed to miss on all of her previous trips. So on Day 17, we woke up early and headed for new (to us) territory.

Hermanville-sur-Mer
Once again, we had to leave before breakfast at the hotel started, but the lovely morning view from our top-floor window eased the pain a bit, as did the pain au chocolat at the local bakery. We were a little worried that the small-town bakery would be closed on Sunday morning, but one thing that you can always count on in France is fresh bread, every morning of the week.

So we headed west for Mont St-Michel. Just as we got our first view of the island and started to get even more excited, we were stopped…

cows in the road
…by a farmer who was taking his cows across the road to the pasture. Fortunately, I had my camera put-together and close at hand!

Mont St-Michel
A few minutes later, we were at the base of the mountain! Mont St-Michel is an island in the mouth of the Couesnon River, and it is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway widens at the base of the island and is turned into a parking lot. Various parts of the parking lot are roped off at different times of the day, due to the tides. We were directed to park a little too close to the edge for my liking, but at least it was on high ground.

Mont St-Michel
The lower part of the island is a town, although it definitely caters to tourists. The narrow stone streets are full of shops and cafés, and are often packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people. We most wanted to see the Abbey and the Church, which are at the top of the rock, so we had to climb a series of staircases. Mont St-Michel is a pilgrimage site, so pilgrims who visit will climb the steps on their knees. We didn’t see any that morning, though.

At the top of the steps, we bought entrances to visit the church and abbey. The admission price included a tour, and an English-language tour was leaving about 15 minutes later, so we decided to wait for it. I’m so glad that we did, because the tour was so informative and our guide did an excellent job. I would have enjoyed the visit without the guide, but it wouldn’t have been as interesting.

View from MSM
We also had plenty of time to enjoy the view! This photo looks south, towards the mainland. The causeway is in the centre, and the Couesnon River is on the right of the photo. The land east of the river is Normandy, and the land west of the river is Brittany. Next year, plans have been made to destroy the causeway and replace it with a bridge, which will allow the water to flow more naturally. Visitors to the island will park in lots on the mainland and will be taken across the bridge on shuttles. The decision has been controversial, and our guide was worried that her business would decrease because people would be deterred from visiting.

Speaking of visitors, our tour guide told us that only about 1/3 of the visitors to Mont St-Michel actually go up to the top of the island to visit the abbey. The other 2/3 are content to stay on the crowded streets and shop in the overpriced tourist trap, which I do not understand at all! It is quite a hike, though, and visitors do have to be physically able to climb the steps. I hope that they are looking at options to create a way to the top for people that have limitations that prevent them from climbing to the top.

Church
Seeing the church in the bright morning sun is something that I will never forget.

Panoramic
I took a few panoramic photos of the view from the terrace, and this is my favourite. Click here to see a bigger version.

Inside the church
Mont St-Michel was a revered abbey for a long time, but in the 18th century, many of the religious institutions in France had lost popularity, and it was closed, left to ruin, and turned into a prison for a time. In 1863, the prison closed, and in 1874, the island was designated a historic site. However, during the dark years of Mont St-Michel, much of the original splendour of the church was lost, including its stained glass, which is why the interior of the church seems a bit stark. I think that the architecture is still quite beautiful, though.

Cloisters
I loved the cloisters, the part of the abbey where the monks can go for a bit of solitude in nature. Our guide gave us some time to walk around the cloisters, too.

Our guide had all kinds of information for how they built the church so high on the point of the mountain, and how it was balanced and basically built around the rock. It’s quite a feat of engineering, especially considering that the oldest parts of the church were built before 1000 A.D. I should also mention that a few monks still live and work in the abbey, sharing the space with 3 million tourists each year. I cannot even imagine what that is like. We saw one of the sisters walking through the church and she seemed to be unfazed by the visitors. I suppose you get used to it fairly quickly.

We had worked up an appetite and didn’t know what we would find on the road, so we decided to grab some lunch at the bottom of the mountain—a ham & cheese sandwich and a Nutella & banana crêpe. Of course, the crêpe was warm, so we had to eat dessert first. Quite a hardship.

Self-po
Not ever using a little camera has really made my self-po skills slip…I need to get back in shape.

View from Afar
We backtracked a bit to get the “faraway” view of Mont St-Michel, not too far from where we’d been stopped at the cow crossing. No cows this time…

Attention aux Moutons
…but we were warned to watch out for sheep.

Windmill
And then a final parting gift from La Normandie…as we drove south, back towards the highway, I saw a windmill up on a hill. I think my mom barely got out the question, “Do you want to stop?” before I was exclaiming, “Turn here, turn, turn!” I had never seen a windmill up close before and hadn’t expected to have the chance on this trip. Very cool!

December 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm 3 comments

Farewell to Normandie

Day 16 of the 2011 European Adventure was our last day to see D-Day sites. A couple of friends had each told us that Arrommanches had a fantastic museum, but when I was researching, I found that Arrommanches had several museums. So I picked one, and while it didn’t have light-up maps on the floor (I have been wanting to go to another museum with light-up maps on the floor ever since I went to Gettysburg when I was 9), I’m glad that we ended up at the Mulberry Harbor museum.

Here’s another aspect of D-Day that I didn’t know before visiting Normandy: the Brits brought a homemade harbor to France, and that’s why the troops were able to continue advancing after the initial attacks. Churchill had the foresight to realize that they would need a major harbor to transport vehicles, equipment, supplies, more troops, etc. after the invasion. Unfortunately, the Nazis also knew this, so they guarded the northern harbor cities most fiercely. So the Brits built one. They had an incredible manufacturing industry throughout the country, and factories all over were converted into harbor-making machines. For the most part, the workers had no idea what they were making, since the top-secret venture was carried out in pieces. The pieces were then assembled into larger pieces, and when it was time invade, the larger pieces were towed toward Arrommanches. Storms destroyed much of the harbor just a few weeks after it was constructed, but replacement parts were brought in quickly. It really was an amazing feat of engineering, and one of the keys to the Allied success. And the museum on the process is really well done. After we went through the museum and watched a couple of films, we went down to the beach to see the ruins up close.

Mulberry Harbor 1

Mulberry Harbor 2

One of the classic tourist sites for Americans visiting Normandy is the American Cemetery. The Americans, the British, and the Canadians were all given pieces of land to bury the soldiers that were killed in the D-Day invasion and in the months after. As can be expected, the American Cemetery is the largest and most built up, with a huge parking area for both cars and tour buses, a large visitor centre, and several elaborate memorials.

Path in the American Cemetery
Walking past the visitor centre and towards the graves, I almost forgot that I was in a cemetery—this path has the serenity of a seaside park.

American Memorial
Of course, I remembered soon enough. The sculpture inside the main memorial where the graves start was stunning in the bright sunlight.

Reflecting Pool
The memorial also features a reflecting pool with lily pads, even more gorgeous on a day with a rich blue sky.

Crosses
Of course I had seen the statistics for the number of lives lost, but you don’t fully understand until you are standing among the rows and rows of white crosses, keeping in mind that there are more plots with more crosses (and Stars of David).

More crosses

I am posting about this day all out of order—we actually did the American Cemetery before Bayeux, and then the Mulberry Harbor museum, but this order made more sense to me, topically.

Our last stop of the day was on a whim. We were heading back to Ouistreham for dinner, but knew that we were still a little bit early. I had put Ouistreham into the GPS, and instead of driving along the stop-and-go coastal highway, Lee (my GPS) took us inland for a bit, and we passed through the town of Bény-sur-Mer. I knew I’d written than name down in my notes, but I didn’t remember why, until I spied a red-and-white maple leaf flag waving on the side of the road. The Canadian Cemetery. So we stopped, of course.

It was smaller and simpler than the American Cemetery, with no tour bus parking. We didn’t even notice the gravel parking lot at first and left our car on the side of the road, but it didn’t matter. Only one other couple was walking through the grounds, and they appeared to be looking for a specific grave. The monuments were pretty, and Mom noticed that everything was written in both English and French, which made me wonder if, like the Juno Beach Centre we’d seen the day before, it took a while to get the funds together to build the memorials. Canada did not recognize its dual official languages until 1969. But that’s a story for another day.

Canadian Cemetery Graves
The graves were traditional headstone-shaped, with either a cross or a Star of David on each one, along with a name, dates, and sometimes an epitaph, too. I liked the flowers between the headstones.

Large Cross
This large cross is a memorial in the centre of the cemetery.

Fleur-de-lis
And of course the fleur-de-lis was ever-present, too.

Once in Ouistreham, we walked up and down the pedestrian-only Avenue de la Mer to choose a restaurant—we knew that we were going to stay far away from the mini-golf place this time! The one that we picked served 17 different kinds of mussels, so we each got a cauldron-full of them. Mine were baked with apples and camembert…for me, this is pretty much food heaven. The only thing that could have made it better was gelato, and that was our next stop. Pretty great way to spend our last night in Normandie!

December 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm Leave a comment

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A serial road tripper chronicles her adventures.

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